Whipping girls and other normal Easter traditions

People are the same the world over. The farther I travel, the truer I find this to be.

Occasionally, however, in moments where I am confronted by a tradition or a habit of culture or custom that is new to me, foreign in its very essence, or antiquated to a point of appearing alien, I am forced to challenge my notions about people, and, in extension, about myself.

Easter Monday in the Czech Republic provides one such opportunity.

For those unfamiliar with the custom, Easter is celebrated on Monday in the Czech Republic. The four-day weekend usually draws many Czechs into the countryside. The seclusion of far-away villages has provided sanctuary from prying eyes and unwanted visitors since before the days of communism, though Big Brother certainly increased the incentive for Czechs to make a habit of leaving Prague for a few days whenever possible. It is very common for Czechs to have a cottage somewhere away from whatever big city they live in. So as Easter weekend approached, the cars in my neighborhood dwindled down substantially and by Saturday afternoon a stillness had settled over the whole town.

I live in a bit of a village myself. It’s been included into Prague’s city limits, but it looks like a picture clipping from a ‘40’s real estate magazine, complete with a main road winding from the town square, past our war memorial and old-fashioned store fronts, into the forests that crest the hills behind our honey-comb of houses. It’s a quiet place.

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Easter Sunday isn’t really recognized by most Czechs. Many spend the day painting eggs or baking lamb-shaped cakes. It’s Monday that everyone looks forward to.

…If it feels like I’m stalling, it’s because I’m just not sure how to explain this tradition to my American friends.

On Easter Monday, boys are given pomlázky which are whips made of pussywillow twigs and decorated with ribbons. Boys take the whips and . . . for lack of a better way to put this . . . hit girls.

Yes, there is a centuries-old tradition where boys chant a Czech poem and hit girls with whips (for “health and youth” because for what other reason would a woman subject herself to such antics?) and the girls have to give the boys painted eggs or chocolate. In fairness, the boys claim not to really “flog” that hard and the girls are allowed to throw ice water on any boy who tries to swat them after noon.

But no matter how many of my Czech students, colleagues and friends explained it to me, it seemed backwards and third-wordly. So, naturally, I had to see it for myself.

On Monday morning, coated and camera’d, I met my friend at the bus stop at the bottom of our hill. Taylor is like a glass of Southern tea – tall, sweet, and incredibly cool under pressure. She was also interested in this crazy tradition and since she lives in the city, we agreed to walk through my neighborhoods in an attempt to witness this phenomenon.

“I’m really excited about this,” she told me, eyes glistening from the cold. It was only about nine in the morning. She seemed as giddy as I felt.

Before we had even reached the stones stairs leading into the forest, a group of scraggly high school boys appeared from out of nowhere with whips. They saw us and made a move with their pomlázky held out like sabers. Taylor cried out in surprise and as we hurried away I said loudly in Czech, “Sorry, we don’t have chocolate.”

“Co že?!” They sounded frustrated and swatted their whips at the bushes until they reached the next house. As Taylor and I ascended the hill, we heard through the bare-limbed trees the gleeful shrieks of a woman and the chanting of the boys. Laughter.

We looked at each other.

“This is so weird,” said Taylor. We were both turning red. Some of that may have been the chill in the air. It did not feel warm enough to be April.

“I can’t even believe this is a thing,” I said as we climbed the hill. “This would never be allowed in the United States.”

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We climbed out of the forest and began down the crumbly streets of the upper neighborhoods.

“Mary, they’re traveling in packs,” said Taylor as we stepped into the middle of the road. Middle school-aged boys were indeed roaming around in groups of fours or sevens. They looked rather silly, strutting so confidently with their bowed whips and wicker Easter baskets, pulling their fuzzy hats and scarves over their ears to keep warm. Everyone in this country needs thug lessons.

We figured out very quickly that if we didn’t make eye contact and kept my very obtrusive camera visible at all times, no one would approach us. These boys were younger than the scalawags by the bus stop anyway.

Still, it did feel a bit like a safari ride. We’d spot a group of boys and stop to get a good picture, daring ourselves to stay still long enough to get a good shot as the mob came closer.

There were a number of fathers walking around with even younger boys, little toddlers who could barely hold their whips up. It was so cute and yet we wrestled with the concept.

Through the slats in a fence, we could see several families gathered in a backyard, making a circle around the whippees, taking turns swatting legs and handing out chocolates.

The US is currently having a “Women’s Rights” revolution with campaigns like #HeForShe, which have garnered attention from Hollywood stars and United Nations representatives alike. In a world where violence against women is being brought to account, it seems impossible that a tradition like this still exists, even if the whipping is playful and the purpose is for good health and chocolate eggs.

We walked through the rows of gated homes, watching spring’s earliest flowers struggle to bloom in the cold weather. The sun did come out eventually and with it came a wave of warmth and some much-needed Vitamin D.

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“I want to see someone actually getting whipped,” said Taylor, disappointed by the lack of excitement – most of the action takes place inside the garden gates or doorways, just out of sight, where the mothers wait happily to hand out the hand crafted eggs and bits of candy.

“Okay,” I agreed, “I think it’s time to go to the other side of the hill.”

The top of the hill houses a chapel and cemetery. The view of the surrounding valleys is one of my all-time favorites and this morning everything was washed in a cross-stitch of crystal light and velvet shadows.

We talked about the life of an expat, what it’s like living away from our families, how we’re supposed to adjust to going back home.

Home. Wherever that is.

“It’s things like these crazy traditions that make me wish I could stay here,” Taylor admitted.

I nodded. I get that feeling too. As the morning dripped away and the hoards of boys were joined by vivacious girls with baskets and whips, desperate to be included, our doubts about the appropriateness of this particular ritual seemed to melt away with it. Honestly, it was just nice to see so many fathers and sons out together.

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We walked to the village square and passed a group of youngsters, led by a girl of about eleven. They eyed us in a business-like manner before the girl said, “Neznáme lidi” – “We don’t know those people.” At least some of these rascals have standards. It’s not typical for girls to go get eggs, especially as they get older, but some of these rambunctious little females were clearly determined to break the mold.

As the square came into view, we heard a group of fathers and a handful of little children emerge from the alley behind us. It looked like a zoo excursion, everyone stuffed in jackets like marshmallows, holding hands in a line, being shuffled along by their dads.

The square was empty and quiet and our stomachs had begun to rumble, so we turned back, following the crooked lanes through lonely blocks of ancient houses before finding the forest path home again.

As we reached it, we heard the cries of a boy whose basket had fallen (or been pushed?) to the ground. Many of his eggs were broken on the street or rolling away to the freedom of the gutters. His pals laughed and kicked the eggs away from him and he sighed as he collected the remainders of his goods and re-basketed them.

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Taylor let out a little sigh.

“Poor guy,” she said as we watched him pick up his half-empty basket and braided whip and trod along after his friends. “He can’t go home without his spoils. That’s no fun at all.”

I looked at her, amused.

“You’ve certainly changed your tune.”

She smiled.

“It seems strange to me still, but harmless also. It’s definitely a family activity, isn’t it?”

It definitely is. Mothers and daughters paint the eggs together, boys and fathers go to neighbors and friends to collect them. I can see how it might not be fun to be a girl on this holiday, especially around the age when you just want to sleep in and eat all the chocolate yourself. But seeing the holiday unfolding, like an odd trick-or-treating ritual, somehow made it more human – more understandable. It’s not what it looks like from the outside.

I think that’s what our problem is. We approach the world with our preconceived notions of what is or isn’t okay. We try to interpret the world through lenses tinted with dust from our own experiences and way of thinking. But how much more would we understand our neighbors around the world if took our glasses off. What if, instead of trying to interpret or pass judgments, we simply aimed to experience the world around us. To live in someone else’s home for a day or a month or a year. Unfiltered. Unassuming.

Not to say that this would solve the world’s problems or that we would all eventually agree or even understand each other. But I think it would go a long way in developing empathy for one another in proving that, no matter how far you travel, people will be the same. Boys will chase girls; girls will ambitiously reach out for what is often given freely to boys; mothers will give freely to everyone in love; and fathers will be that pivotal role model, either in example or absence, the guiding hand to someone very young as they stumble along the road in the spring of life.

Find your inner lumberjack

IMG_1315Close your eyes. Seriously do this.

(Okay, I realize you can’t read this with your eyes closed, so metaphorically do this).

Close your eyes and picture newly harvested wheat fields rolling out below your feet. You can see yellow stubs barely escaping from earth that is soft and dark, covering the hills like a shaggy, golden carpet. And you can feel the flutter of the summer’s last few insects around your ankles. Now turn slowly, breathing in the freshness of the air, and look behind you where the seam between the fields and the forest is sown up with moss and sapling trees. The heart of the forest is deep and still. You can hear it sighing as it prepares for its winter slumber.

And it doesn’t matter what time you picture yourself there because this little corner of the earth probably hasn’t changed significantly in centuries. The years have rolled by like waves on a forgotten beach, uncounted.

It was here that I found my inner lumberjack.

On a cool Sunday afternoon I traveled by bus to Liberec, a town within a day’s hike from the borders of both Germany and Poland, to visit a Czech family for my last few days of summer.

This particular family likes to spend their free days going out to their farm to clear wood, maintain the buildings on the property, and shoot airguns. Mr. K is Czech and Mrs. K is so very British, and all four of their sons are a delight. So our time was sprinkled with things very Czech, very British and very delightful.

Monday, just after a lovely lunch of homemade stuffed puff-pastries, we trekked out to the countryside with tools, a picnic basket, warm jackets, a dog and some little neighborhood boys. The boys – about 10 and 12 – were very excited to join the expedition and the three of us sat, giddy children ready for an adventure. (The boys’ mom had just gotten back from the hospital with their newest sibling and Mrs. K thought it might be good to lighten her load, so to speak). Also along to help was sweet Eliška, a friend of the K family and a friend of mine.

We were a motley crew, the lot of us. But we were greeted warmly by the co-owners of the farm and their flock of sheep and goats. (Necessary selfies were taken with the farm animals).

My family did 4-H for years so stepping out of the van into the smell of manure and old hay was a bit like stepping back into my childhood, minus the pigtails and that obnoxious horse that, I swear, was out to kill me.
The farm has been jointly owned by the K family for 86 years, broken up briefly when it was seized by the Nazis and then controlled by the communists. The property has seen hard years, but the Ks have been working hard to keep the place running and useful. They lease out the fields to the co-owner and take care of the large shed and barn which have both seen damage from floods, thieves and the ever-turning hand of time.

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IMG_1289DSC_6909And every week, they drive out to fix, clean and log (and shoot airguns), which the youngest son tells me, without bothering to hide his frustration, is a bit of a drag.

“Anything gets boring if you do it every week for eight years,” he repeated to me several times during the course of our walk through the fields to the river and up the wooded hillside (The men had driven the van ahead of us through the fields – we went up the back way to take in a bit of the property). “I don’t see any reason to do all this. It makes more sense to stay home and play video games.”

Ah, the wisdom of twelve year olds. And he reminds me of mine back home.

Not even the incredible view of the pastures and the tree-laced slopes that towered over the right side of the path seemed to perk up his spirits. I tried to dampen my excitement for his sake, but there was no getting around the fact that this day was an adventure I have been dreaming of my whole life. Farm animals. Old buildings. Harvested wheat fields. A FOREST WITH TREES TO BE CUT DOWN. The Paul Bunyan in me (that secretly lives in every American) was crying tears of joy as we began our climb up the steep slope of the hill.

We found the guys taking down old trees and sawing them into chunks. Pulling on our gloves, we then carried them over to the edge of the forest where they were loaded into the van.

Some of the logs were light because of rot and others were cumbersome or sticky with sap. Like any good lumberjack, I sat on the heavy ones until they behaved themselves. Bunyan would have been proud.

We couldn’t have asked for a better work environment. The forest was beautiful. Tiny pinecones hung on tree branches like ornaments and red berries brightened the deep green boughs. It looked like my sister had gone in there and decorated the whole place for a pre-Christmas hot cocoa party.

I was amazed at how dark it was in the forest. Those trees stretch up to the heavens with thick leaves fleshing out their upper branches. But down where we walk around, all we see are trunks or dying limbs, spots that are decaying or that have been rubbed raw by the wild boar herds that roam around. (Yes, you read that right, there are wild boar herds here). But when you walk toward the clearing, towards those golden fields, the sunlight pours down like champagne – it glitters and bubbles and warms you right up.

I will always find it amazing, how powerful the sun is.

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It’s difficult work, actually. Carrying bundles of wood is hard on your arms, your legs, your back and any dignity you thought you had. I dropped things on my toes. I found myself struggling to carry wood in the most awkward positions before realizing I probably could have just made two trips. I nearly died several times after discovering a spider(s) upon my person.

One glove didn’t fit properly so things tended to slip from that hand. And my glasses cut off my peripheral vision so I walked into more than one tree during the course of the afternoon.

“Have a drink, Mary,” said Mrs. K. She held out a turquoise cup – plastic, like the kind my grandma kept in her bottom cupboard for the grandkids when we all came over. I took it gratefully, noting that the youngest K boy and one of the neighborhood chums were both taking a break also, their handsaw and pile of logs resting peacefully behind the back tire of the van.

I was surprised when I took a sip of what I had presumed was black tea. The sweet, tingly taste of Dr. Pepper burst onto my tongue, like a distant memory that becomes brighter when revisiting old pictures and songs. I don’t remember the last time I had a Dr. Pepper and I don’t think I even cared for it that much in the USA. But now I’m pretty sure it will always taste like nostalgia.

We kept a steady pace for several hours, until the light turned the color of grain and the sky began to pale. The boys kept sawing, Eliška and I carried (and dragged, when necessary) wood to the growing stack of timber, and we all ate cookies. Also, I chopped down a tree.

Wait, let’s go back to that last one.

I CHOPPED DOWN A TREE.

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For a moment, I stopped halfway between our worksite and the fields. I looked about at all the dying wood that needed to be cleared. The Ks may never be able to finish this. They may never see their dreams for the roofless barn fulfilled. They may toil on this land till they wither and die like the trees. And it will still be good.

This is humbling work. It is hard work. And I can see how, after many years, it can feel very unimportant.

But in what other way can we so directly fulfill God’s calling to be a steward of the earth? With dirty hands and sweaty faces we are giving a small sacrifice of obedience to the Creator who has given us so much.

“Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”

Those are some words, aren’t they? I always forget the name of the hymn, but that one line comes back to me often. This forest is one of the little spaces where the K family is faithfully glorifying God.

We loaded the rest of the wood, ate the rest of the goodies in the picnic basket, and then made our way back toward the farmyard. We sent the neighbor boys and the dog back through the forest with youngest K boy, his earlier wishes to stay home and play video games melted into sap-slicked hands and vivacious laughter.

The van bumped along slowly, loaded heavily with our tools and the last of the wood. From the window, those rolling hills looked like sleeping dragons whose golden scales rippled beneath the pull of the evening wind. And I thought of my own little space. My place of toil.

I closed my eyes and pictured it. I pictured the warm, soapy water I mop the floor with on Saturday mornings. I pictured the grouchy little faces of students I sometimes run out of patience for. I pictured long, long walks home from the bus when I’m cold and tired. I pictured those moments where I doubted or, worse, begrudged the work I have been given.

Somehow, understanding that our daily chores and responsibilities are like woodlands that need to be tended – and if not by us, then by whom? – makes it easier to pick up the ax and saw with a smile. Not saying that the work becomes any less difficult or the forest any less dark, only that it’s so much easier to see that the place you’re laboring in is really very beautiful when you know the purpose for which you’re toiling. And my, that sun is powerful. IMG_1344

There were stars

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I think two things.

One, I don’t think I say often enough on this blog thingy of mine just how incredibly blessed I am. I tend to post about life’s trials (which tend to be not much more than a spider in the bathroom or falling down the occasional escalator). But I want the record to show that I have been given much to be grateful for. So, so much.

Two. This one is important. (They’re both important, but this one is the relatable one). I don’t think we notice how fleeting moments are, and how precious are those which hold on to some wisp of permanence in our memories.

And I think one and two are connected. But to prove this, I have to tell you a story.

It’s a story about stars and people who shine like them. It’s a story about an unfortunate situation. It’s kind of a story about Jared and I having one last grand adventure. But mostly it’s a story about moments. Continue reading